Dirty Dancing

Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, July 3, 2005


Looking for Love in Buenos Aires

By Marina Palmer

Morrow. 323 pp. $24.95

Marina Palmer's chatty memoir of her adventures in the Argentine capital arrives at what seems to be a propitious time. HBO has shelved "Sex and the City," "Desperate Housewives" is in reruns, and the American appetite for vicarious sensuality is being only partly sated by a new series that features ballroom dancing. "Dancing With the Stars," in which professional ballroom champions pair with vaguely familiar "celebrities" to trip -- make that stumble -- the light fantastic, has been a hit since it began airing last month. So Kiss & Tango , a frank, explicit diary of an attractive young woman's many amorous and terpsichorean couplings, seems ideally poised to fill a gap in the zeitgeist.

Palmer, "Greek and American by birth, English and French by education," discovered tango dancing in January 1997, during a two-week visit with a cousin in Buenos Aires. She had little idea what to expect on her initial visit to a milonga (a party where folks gather by night to mingle, flirt and dance). At 2 a.m., her cousin escorted her to what looked like a sports club or gym. Once inside, she took in "a brightly lit dance floor filled with a swirling mass of rotating bodies that were pressed together so tightly, they looked like a can of sardines come alive." Still, Palmer was instantly smitten, a process she describes in language that sounds more painful than enchanting. The beautiful music, she breathlessly recalls, "wrenched my soul from its socket." Her first tango lesson a few days later proved equally transformative: "I felt myself lifted up into a cloud. I was at one with myself and everything around me. It was a moment of pure happiness. Happiness as I've never felt before."

Such ecstatic moments were rare back in the States, where she lived a "nightmarish existence as an account executive at a large New York agency." Determined to retain a bit of that bliss, Palmer returned home and signed up for tango lessons at three different studios. Soon she became a milonguera , a tango addict who goes out dancing every night of the week. But all the whirling and twirling only reminded her of what she lacked. "I don't know when it started," she noted in March 1998. "But it has hit me hard. This craving for a tango partner. One my own age. One I might conceivably fall in love with. . . . I can't imagine my life without the tango. . . . It's true what they say: You do not choose the tango. It chooses you."

Her epiphany led to a radical departure. "It was all so clear, so simple," she realized. "I was going to quit my job, move to Buenos Aires, and find myself a partner." Her parents, who lived in London, were not enthusiastic about her new plans. "I didn't put you through Cambridge for you to throw it all away like this," sighed her dad, a well-off banker. Eventually he agreed to subsidize her to the tune of $2,000 a month. Palmer arrived in Buenos Aires in March 1999, envisioning a career as a professional tango dancer. This is a little like showing up at La Scala and demanding a role in "La Bohème." But Palmer was 31, about 10 years older than the partners favored by male tango pros, and mature enough to know that she would have to work hard. As in extremely hard. She took ballet lessons three times a week to improve her flexibility, studied tango with various local masters and hit the milongas every night.

A veteran traveler who had already lived in five countries, Palmer had little difficulty picking up the local Spanish. "I've noticed that you don't even need to understand that much to get the gist of what somebody is saying," she observed. "Which proves that most of the words we use are superfluous." Alas, this sage perception had no detectable influence on her method of diary-keeping. She can't resist telling everything, even in instances where a mere hint would be sufficient. Her wordiness is often leavened by a dry kind of wit, though. For example, she recalls her visit to a decaying tearoom where "retro globe lights hang like bunches of grapes from the ceiling, except they are not retro because they have not been replaced since 1966." But then she goes on to add, "Neither have the dancers, by the looks of them."

That last little zinger shows the dangers of her warts-and-all approach. One of Palmer's most persistent and disturbing blemishes is her lack of appreciation for anyone who's been on Earth long enough to reach retirement age. "You know how old people go stale?" she lamented in a passage dated Jan. 27, 1998. "No matter how much cologne Armando [an aspiring suitor in his sixties] doused himself with . . . it couldn't cover up that sickly sweet smell of putrefying flesh." All Argentines frequent cafes, she noted in September 1999, "even the old, who in other countries have the decency to stay out of sight." Elsewhere, she describes an elderly female dancer as an "old bag." Of retired men, "It goes without saying that the very idea of them having sex in the first place is yucky."

If it is true, as Palmer notes, that "political correctness has not made it this far south yet," it's also true that she didn't bring any with her. But she did tote plenty of baggage, most of it involving her failure to land Mr. Right. Although she soon learned to glide across the dance floor with confidence and considerable grace, her attempts at romance met with many a misstep and pratfall. She bedded several promising studs -- their romps are recorded in unsparing detail -- but they seldom pleased her. The few who left her satisfied usually wound up leaving her altogether. The problem, she concludes, is that "in the eyes of . . . men, I'm not wife material. I'm not even girlfriend material. They take one look at me and think: SEX!" It's no wonder, really, since her mates' myopia was oddly congruent with her own philosophy: "If you can't beat 'em, you might as well go for a roll in the hay."

And so it goes, through an exhausting and intermittently interesting succession of ballroom and bedroom partners. Palmer notes near the end of her three-year sojourn, "I remember every face and every name of every man I have ever danced with." I doubt that most readers will be able to say the same. Her crowded dance card left me scrambling to remember the differences between Julio, Javier, Diego, Frank, Pablo and all the other beaus fortunate enough to behold Palmer's flashing fishnet stockings and stiletto heels at close range.

While the author's private melodramas unreeled, events in the outside world loomed in far larger dimensions -- with far starker consequences. Only when such developments threatened to inconvenience her did she catalogue them in her diary, briefly mentioning the destabilizing Argentine currency, the turmoil in the executive branches of the government, the violent unrest in the streets. Mostly she focused on more intimate subjects, such as wondering "if people realize how difficult it is to dance tango while on the brink of orgasm." Readers with enough stamina to stick with Palmer to the end can rest assured that she will tell them just how challenging that is. ·

Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.

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